Monday, February 21, 2011

Just What is Effective Teaching?

On Friday, February 18, I had the opportunity to participate as one of 13 educators in the Education Writers Association (EWA) seminar entitled "The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession".  I stumbled upon the following tweet on January 11, 2011:

Jason E. Glass
Would be great to have IA represented: RT @: Talking teacher effectiveness in NYC. . FREE!

Three things caught my eye: 1) effectiveness (which is what our TQP grant is designed to develop and ultimately measure)  2) Iowa representation (encouraged and hoped for by our new Department of Education Director)  and  3) FREE!   So I followed the link; learned that Linda Perlstein was seeking education bloggers to attend; and applied.  Shortly thereafter I learned that I was selected to attend.

In addition to the 13 educator bloggers as mentioned above, also attending were representatives from the Carnegie Corporation (sponsoring organization) and Education Writers Association, 38 journalists, and representatives from a variety of organizations as panelists.  With journalists representing such places as the Washington Post, San Antonio Express-News, Wilmington News Journal, Baltimore Sun, the Associated Press, Seattle Times, New York Times and the Harvard Education Letter and educators from New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., it was clear me to that I was the only voice for rural education in the room.  Initially I felt I may be even the only Midwesterner but was happy to learn that there were journalists from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Catalyst Chicago.

Although I am still reflecting on assimilating all the information shared that day, as well as intertwining it with my first-ever visit to New York City, I have a few tidbits to share.
The national arena seems to have shifted the conversation about teacher quality (a certified and qualified teacher in every classroom) to teacher effectiveness without necessarily defining what is meant by an effective teacher.  Studies have shown that the single most important element in improving student learning and achievement is the teacher.  The Carnegie Corporation asserted in their opening remarks that the "excellent" teacher is what is sought.  So what is this elusive teacher (whether we use the word quality, effective, or excellent)?
For the work of our grant we have been viewing the definition in "Approaches to evaluating teacher effectiveness: A research synthesis" by Goe, Bell, Little 
This asserts that Effective Teachers:
  • Have high expectations for all students and help students learn
  • Contribute to positive academic, attitudinal, and social outcomes for students
  • Use diverse resources to plan and structure engaging learning opportunities; monitor student progress formatively, adapting instruction as needed; and evaluate learning using multiple sources of evidence
  • Contribute to the development of classrooms and schools that value diversity and civic-mindedness
  • Collaborate with other teachers, administrators, parents, and education professionals to ensure student success
Our review of literature asserts that there may be emerging attributes beyond this which we are attempting to incorporate into our model (see previous blog, "Emerging Attributes of Effective Teaching")
Throughout the day various people spoke about and around teacher effectiveness.  At the same time I never felt the sense that we all had the same definition from which we were operating.  To me, this is a tragedy.  Not one that cannot be overcome, but one that does not serve the teaching profession well.  The era of measuring effectiveness is upon us.  Until we, as educators, can agree on measurable ways to evaluate our performance and not merely those of our students, then I am not certain we are acting as the true professionals we purport to be.  The time is now for us as educators to clearly articulate what it is that effective or excellent teachers do, before this definition or measurement is thrust upon us from outside.

I welcome your feedback and hope that a discussion can ensue around this notion. 


  1. I do think we need to get away from measuring teacher "effectiveness" based solely or even mainly on student test scores, even when massaged by value-added methodologies. I think we can look at other things as well, such as persistence, willingness to take intellectual risks (something that our current overemphasis on testing seems to discourage), developing the ability to learn independently. How is the teacher helping the students with these issues?

    Good to meet you, especially to have a chance to talk over dinner on Thursday.

  2. As parents of a child with a diagnosis that entitles him to special education services, my husband and I are able to see education from a unique perspective. We have, like many parents, witnessed the "excellence" in education to which you refer, and have also witnessed a serious lack of effectiveness. Unless one can come up with the recipe for excellent teaching, how can one achieve it? You are correct; this lack of clear definition of effective teaching certainly does not serve the teaching profession well. At the same time, it is a far greater disservice to the children being taught. How can teacher effectiveness be evaluated based upon student performance? We have, over and over again, been informed of our son's lack of potential, based only on the nature of his diagnosis. Yet he continues to grow and to surprise those who would set limitations for him. If not for advocates, who believe in his ability to accomplish great things, what would his potential be? How can one determine whether or not a child is on a path to reach their full potential? How can one honestly predict a child's full potential? Learning occurs on a continuum and should take place within an entirely inclusive environment, filled with diverse learners. Where it starts and where it stops can only be determined by the individual students.

    Based upon the observations we have made throughout the years, the greatest contributor to effective teaching is that of commitment. Those teachers that we would deem "excellent" have a clear and decisive commitment to their students. They are committed to growth. They are committed to the student moving forward, making strides to one day reaching their full potential, which will ultimately be determined by the student. Once teachers are allowed to focus on the growth of each student, and not standards and norms, it is my belief they can then achieve excellence.

  3. Stacey, I was glad to meet you at the EWA conference, and look forward to staying in touch. And I applaud your search for a common definition of effective teaching. But for those of us who work with at-risk children, that definition already exists, thanks to 40 years of research by Martin Haberman (from the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee!) distinguishing the ideologies and best practices of "star" teachers from those of "quitter/failure" teachers. I encourage you and your Northern Iowa colleagues (and readers) to drop everything to devour Haberman's book, Star Teachers:

    The culmination of Haberman's research is an interview that assesses whether a candidate will or will not succeed as a teacher of impoverished children. And after 18 years of experience with that interview (first as an interviewee, and then as an interviewer), I can tell you that it couldn't be a more reliable tool--provided of course it's implemented with fidelity.

  4. I think you nail the multi-million dollar question - what is an effective teacher? I imagine the 13 of us there would have very different definitions of this, and perhaps this is why we skirted the conversation, but we need to begin to, otherwise the answer will be defined for us by others.

    And sorry I didn't mention this, but I am a native midwesterner! Ohio born and raised.

  5. In total agreement, Steve. . . we do need to find measurable (and multiple) ways of determining either teacher effectiveness or an effective teacher (struggling to decide . . . I like the verb better but is it the noun that we need to determine?). It will come at us if not from within us.